Strait Crossing, 1982

Mark Sanchez – who recently received the Cultural Ambassador award at the 2nd Gibraltar Cultural Awards – has been writing about Gibraltar for the last fifteen years. In this period he has published novels, short stories, historical fiction, travelogues, family memoirs, books of essays, as well as shorter pieces for a range of different publications. He also been invited to speak about his books at different European universities and has seen his work discussed and lectured about by European and American academics.  Very soon he will be publishing Gooseman, his fourth full-length novel and thirteenth book on a Gibraltar-related subject. As part of the build-up to Gooseman’s release, we will be publishing a series of extracts from some of Mark’s fiction and non-fiction books. Today we are publishing an abridged extract from The Escape Artist, Sanchez’s first novel. Its protagonist and narrator is Brian Manrique, a Gibraltarian civil servant travelling from Gibraltar to Spain via Morocco in the days when the frontier was closed.

Strait Crossing, 1982

By M.G. Sanchez

At ten to eight next morning, I boarded the SS Mons Calpe with a small suitcase of clothes and over three hundred pounds in pesetas stashed away in my trouser pockets. It was a terribly humid and overcast morning, one of those unusually warm winter days when the slightest exertion triggers bucketfuls of sweat and almost the entire Rock is sheathed in a low-lying Levanter cloud. Oil tankers anchored in the bay intermittently sounded their foghorns. Seagulls crawled lethargically along the adjacent stone pier. As I climbed the rickety aluminium gangway leading into the ferry, I found myself thinking about my boss at the library and wondering what he’d say when he found out that I was taking time off work without his permission. Bloody irresponsible kid, he’d probably whine. Head up in the clouds, like the rest of his generation. For all that, I felt reasonably cheerful and optimistic. Tolerably content. For the first time in nearly seven years, I was leaving Gibraltar. For the first time in a long, long time, I was breaking the repetitive, changeless, predictable routine that saw me walk every weekday from Laguna to the John Mackintosh Library and back, with nothing more interesting along the way than the odd stop at the cathedral and the even odder visit to Lipton’s supermarket. The thought excited me. Added piquancy to what I was doing. Relishing the feeling, I strode determinedly through the ship’s entrance and then made my way straight to the bar. I ordered a bottle of Heineken and took it with me to a table on the other side of the passenger deck. The ship was only half full at present, but quickly filling up with ex-pat Moroccan workers travelling back to their homeland. One or two of them were dressed in Western clothes, but the majority wore the coarse twilled hooded djellaba that is standard daywear in most parts of the Mahgreb. There was something calm and dignified about those guys. An air of Islamic unflappability. Scattered among them there were a handful of European backpackers — hardy, blue-eyed Germans and Scandinavians with compasses hanging around their necks and rucksacks and sleeping bags strapped to their backs. Two of the Teutons were seated at the table directly opposite mine. A bearded guy with a red bandana and a woman with pigtails and a dome-like ivory-white forehead. Easy-going hippified types. Lots of amulets and bangles and medallions. The scent of two- or three-day-old sweat mildly souring the air around them. As I was looking in their direction, I noticed a map covered in yellow Post-it notes spread out across their table. Ditching my usual reserve, I leaned forward and asked them where they were heading.

‘We’re on our way down to Nouakchott in Mauritania,’ the bearded man answered in that peculiarly lilting tone that Scandinavians have when speaking in English. ‘We’ve signed up to do some charity work with Africa Contact. How about you?’

‘Oh, I’m just on a short business trip — nothing exciting.’

Tanger?’ the blond Swede asked, pronouncing the word in a way that made it sound remarkably like ‘Tongue-out.’

‘No, no, I’m changing ferries at Tangier and then heading back up to Algeciras in Spain. I’ve got some business to attend to in the mountains near Ronda.’

Changing ferries at Tangier was a relatively unproblematic affair. The inbound passengers were funnelled into one of the arrivals halls, while the rest of us transiting passengers were herded along the landing pier and straight into the Ibn Battuta, the ferry that was taking us back across the straits to Algeciras. The interior of the ship was larger and more modern than that of the Mons Calpe. A series of rounded oblong windows lined the perimeter of the main deck, giving an elevated view of the berthing pier below. Since the vessel was already quite full, I assumed that most of the passengers must have come in via a different boarding bridge. Manoeuvring my way through the masses, I found an empty table near a window and plonked myself down with my suitcase. For the next three and a half hours I divided my time between reading a cheap paperback that I had borrowed from the library and mentally fuming at the sheer ridiculousness of the journey. Where else in the world would you have to catch two ferries and travel to another continent just to reach a place which, if the post-Francoist authorities hadn’t been so hell-bent on economically garrotting Gibraltar by keeping the border shut, could be reached by foot in a matter of minutes? That something like this could happen in 1982 was not only shocking; it was an absolute bloody disgrace. Finally, at around half past four, when I was on the point of dozing off, we made our way past Punta Carnero and began the final push towards the port of Algeciras. Being mid-winter, the sun was already quite low in the sky, although it still shone fiercely and with unseasonal warmth. Through the starboard window I had a clear view of Gibraltar on the other side of the bay, rising out of the shadowy waters like some oversized brontosaurus and looking as grey and Levanter-ridden as it had done in the morning. Strange, I thought. How can it be that there’s so much sunshine here when it’s so cloudy over there? No wonder the British held on to Gibraltar after ditching Minorca in the early nineteenth century, I told myself. The Levanter Cloud often makes the place just as grey and dismal as back in Blighty.

I had no real problems clearing Spanish customs and immigration, although the guardia civil who stamped my passport sarcastically remarked how great it was to see a Spanish surname like mine on a British travel document. He was a jowly chap with a thick, coffee-coloured moustache and a shiny black leather tricornio. Sweat stains had formed around his armpits and across his upper chest, adding spots of dark, frothy, mossy green to the otherwise pistachio colour of his shirt. I gleefully noted the undecorated epaulettes on his shoulders and walked past his post. Once out of the terminal area, I brought out my packet of Rothmans and lit a fag. I took a few slow puffs, letting the warm smoke swirl down into my lungs, then prematurely discarded the cigarette and stubbed it out with my heel. I hadn’t been to Spain for nearly fifteen years and could scarcely remember anything about the place, but I instantly recognised the smell. That typical Andalusian odour of lejía and zotal. Of oldness smothered by bucketloads of disinfectant. It is a melancholy smell. A sarcophagal smell. The smell of a nation struggling to emerge from the catacomb of its morbidly religious past. Preoccupied with these fancy thoughts, I made my way to a nearby taxi stand and asked a taxi driver how much it would cost to get to Opayar. The man in the car, a tawny fellow with tinted glasses and the half-smoked remains of a fat cigar hanging from his lips, scrutinised me for a few seconds before finally coming up with the figure of eighteen hundred pesetas (about nine pounds) — sin incluir IVA, por supuesto. I said that this was okay and got into the back of the vehicle. The interior smelled of sweat and corroded leather and reminded me a little of the smell in the passenger deck of the Mons Calpe. A rosary was wrapped around the stem of the rear‑view mirror, its shiny black beads contrasting strikingly with the dirt-caked glass of the windscreen. The triangular vent window on the driver’s side was missing and had been replaced by a carefully cut sheet of compressed wood. As I made myself comfortable, I noticed the taxi driver observing me via the rear-view mirror. ‘You’re from Gibraltar, verdad?’ he asked wheezingly in Spanish a few seconds later. ‘Yes,’ I warily replied, ‘how can you tell?’ ‘It’s your accent,’ the man muttered with his cigar still clamped between his teeth. ‘It’s a bit funny. Un poco curioso.’ He didn’t say anything else after that, but I could sense that he resented that I was a Gibraltarian. He reminded me of the Spaniards I had met every now and again during my time at uni. Ultra-chic Madrid pijos, mainly. Funded by the Bank of Mummy and Daddy back in Salamanca or Alonso Martínez or some other posh capital district. The moment they discovered you were from Gibraltar, they’d look at you as a renegade Spaniard, an Andalusian apostate, an odious desecrator of the Spanish national honour. Blinded by their government’s anti-Gibraltarian propaganda, they’d shake their heads and tell you that you couldn’t possibly be a Gibraltarian because Gibraltarians didn’t really exist — there being nobody on that pestiferous scrap of rock, as everybody well knows, apart from a few soldados guiris, a handful of renegade Andalusian smugglers and one or two malditos monos.....

‘So you think they’re finally going to open la verja like everybody keeps on saying?’ the taxi driver suddenly asked, snapping me out of my thoughts.

‘I don’t know.’

‘Well, I hope they do,’ he said, fixing his eyes on mine by means of the rear-view mirror. ‘I really hope so. De verdad que si.’

‘And why’s that?’ I asked a little uneasily.

‘Because in a few years’ time la Roca will finally become nuestra once and for all.’

‘I doubt very much that will happen,’ I said quietly.

‘Why not? You’re all Spanish there more or less, aren’t you?’

I looked at him via the rear-view mirror and saw that his diminutive Andalusian eyes had contracted even further and were now surrounded by a tangle of cross-hatched wrinkles. I could sense that he was really, really enjoying himself.

‘Well, actually, you are wrong,’ I responded with surprising firmness. ‘We are not Spanish. We are Gibraltarians. And we don’t want anything to do with Spain. All you guys have done is harass us and try to make life difficult for us. In Franco’s time you disrupted our telecommunications and cut the supply of oxygen to our hospitals and made it an offence for Spaniards to export any goods to Gibraltar, before finally closing the frontier in a despicable attempt to economically garrotte us. Now you talk about opening the border, but at the same time you say that you want to do so in a way that will stop Gibraltar from benefitting economically from the situation. Do you really think that Gibraltarians will forget about all this animosity and come running to you with open arms? I somehow doubt it very much. So yes, you can open the border if you want. You can allow cars and pedestrians and even donkeys to pass through. Le diré algo: we will never have anything to do with Spain unless the Spanish Government starts treating us decently and fairly.’

 ‘Vale, vale,’ the taxi driver said, looking away from the mirror and fixing his eyes back on the road. ‘No need to bite my head off, jefe. I was only saying what I hear every day out in la calle, that’s all.’ 

I looked down and tried to calm my breathing. I was confused and angry, extremely agitated. I wanted to carry on telling the Spanish taxi driver about the innumerable acts of hostility that we Gibraltarians have suffered at the hands of the Spanish. I wanted to tell him about every single little thing: the insults we frequently get when we travel to Spain, the calumnies about us in the Spanish press, the excessive checking of our documentation at ports and airports by the Guardia Civil, the vetoing of our applications to the IOC and other sporting bodies. But as I gazed at the back of his head and at the rosary swinging pendulously from the rear-view mirror beside him, I decided that there was no point. He wouldn’t understand. If there is one thing, after all, that characterises the Gibraltar dispute, it is the extreme partisanship of all those concerned. This partisanship acts like some kind of dense mental fog, freezing our rationality and stopping us from understanding the positions and aspirations of the other participants in this unholy ménage à trois. The Spaniards suffer from this mental fog. So do the Gibraltarians. Even the British, usually so diplomatic and even-handed, cannot free themselves from this stultifying sense of entrenchment….